“Ah, the one with the train”
Said HMV guy. I asked him if he happened to stock Snowpiercer, although I knew it was unlikely. For reasons I believe that are related to artistic disagreements between Harvey Weinstein and Snowpiercer’s director, Bong Joon-ho, the film has had a fairly irregular international release. So irregular, that it’s still not been officially released in the UK. The one with the train, you’ll have to buy it on ebay or Amazon from a foreign country if you want to see the film with 100% legality. I recommend you buy it because it’s an excellent film. If you like your action with a slab of politics on the side, or maybe that should be the other way round, then Snowpiercer won’t disappoint. If however you need your story lines to be cast in solid-reality and logic then this might not be the film for you.
Set in the near future where a failed experiment to stop global warming freezes the earth, Snowpiercer is the laws-of-physics-defying-train that runs on a perpetual motion engine where the last humans now reside. Don’t take the premise too seriously, it’s not supposed to be a prediction of any sort. The train is used as a tool to explore the political systems of man, and indeed, man’s relationship with nature which I’ll look at later. It’s sort of like how the premise of Animal Farm is of course not literal. The powerful critique that the book represents and the analogy it drew to differing systems of economic organisation is what we paid attention to. Snowpiercer is no different.
Our hero is Curtis, played by Chris Evans (Captain America). You can tell he’s the hero because everyone in his part of the train looks like shit, except for him. And possibly Jamie Bell, who plays Curtis’ lieutenant, Edgar. Curtis and his fellow riffraff live in the rear end of the train and endure a harsh existence in which the people from the upper part of the train randomly take their children and give them blocks of black gelatine to eat, but apart from that it’s never made clear exactly why they all share the train and what the purpose is of those who inhabit the back. As we will see later, the very front of the train knows why they’re there, but if you’re one of those guys who’s been living there for 17 years, having escaped the global freeze, what you do with yourself and your time just seems bewildering. It’s a loose part of the plot that could have done with more development, but considering the film is about two hours long and has a lot to tackle it’s just something you need to fill with your imagination.
Nevertheless, even though the world has ended and you’re stuck on a train in economy class forever without even knowing why you’re there, you’ve still got the horn. ‘Train babies’ are naturally those born on the train and it is here that the story begins. Two central characters, one of whom is a friend of Curtis have their children taken away by people from the front of the train. Tanya and Andrew (who I named Crazy Scottish Guy until I read that it is actually Ewan Bremner, completely unrecognisable from earlier roles, most famously Trainspotting) fight, unsuccessfully, to get the children back, resulting in Andrew having his arm removed via frozen decapitation. His arm is placed outside the train via a hole that the train’s designer obviously thought would be necessary at some point.
During the 7 minutes it takes for his arm to completely freeze through Tilda Swinton makes her first appearance as the train’s sort of chief (subordinate to the creator Wilfred of course), Minister Mason. Channelling what can only be described as the ghost of Deidre Barlow and an inflated self-importance belonging to every ambitious bureaucrat, she gives a glorious monologue to the rear-enders, making it clear that they should know their place, quite literally. As Andrew’s screams fade away, she explains that you don’t wear a shoe on your head, you wear a hat. And she is the hat. They are the shoe. It’s our first introduction to the politics of the train. How did Mason become the hat and the others shoes? Because they are freeloaders that came uninvited onto the train. The rest bought their tickets. Thus, they deserve their place and not only deserve it, but should be grateful for their existence. Tied to Mason’s argument is a vague concept about these places also being pre-ordained. Wilfred, the creator of the train and the “engine” is praised as some kind of God-like figure in Mason’s speech. This can be perhaps interpreted as a reflection on religion’s role in society as a device to ameliorate the masses and accept their place in society. They might not have any respect for the cold logic of the free market (I buy my ticket, I have earned my place) but maybe they will if Wilfred can be portrayed as some sort of God?
Besides a later excellent scene with some school children this idea isn’t much developed. No one seems to believe that Wilfred is in any way supernatural nor does this cult seem to have much effect on anyone apart from the children. It seems to be a brief, fanciful pop at the role of religion in society but the shallow nature in which the film tackles the issue doesn’t really add anything to the story apart from add a further edge of surrealism, which is perhaps part of its magic. The central point that Mason makes though, is that having forcefully made their way onto the train the rear-enders should be grateful, for they did not earn their place like the rest of the train. Rationally, what’s there to disagree with? You work for what you get. They did not contribute to the train, so what does the train owe them? This is the root of laissez faire economics and it’s a seductive ideology, as we see in our own world. In the world of Snowpiercer though, it’s not going to wash. Whatever the rights and wrongs of their origin, the rear-enders will not tolerate their condition in perpetuity. Their present state is simply too much to bear. So they do what every oppressed group has done once they have no other option, they turn to force.
When Tilda’s finished, Andrew’s arm is removed from the hole. Two menacing brothers/lovers/father & son – it is not made clear in the film but IMDb says they are Franco the Younger & Elder – destroy his arm with a giant mallet. Andrew’s in immense pain but this doesn’t seem to alter his mental state in any way and he returns to the rear with one arm and the scene is over.
Curtis, under the tutelage of Gilliam (John Hurt), has been planning a rebellion on the train. He is not the first though and we are told that there were other rebellions that failed. Curtis receives little notes hidden in the blocks of gelatine. These notes tell him that the security expert of the train is locked in the cell block, in a carriage a little further up. Earlier, Curtis had heard Mason tell one of the guards to “put away that useless gun”. Curtis suspects that they’ve used all their bullets in the previous rebellions. An opportunity presents itself and our hero tests his theory for himself. In the best moment of first part of the film Curtis points a guard’s gun to his head and pulls the trigger: he doesn’t die and the revolution immediately begins with the guard’s becoming overwhelmed. The film is now in full flow and this is where it really gets going.
The journey then takes its course through each carriage of the train. They find the security expert Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) who appears madder than Andrew. He’s addicted to Kronol, a drug made from industrial waste. He agrees to open the doors on the way to the train in exchange for the drug. Releasing his daughter, Yona, whose brain appears just as muddled from Kronol addiction, Namgoong gets to work. They go through door after door. Our hero discovers what’s in the black gelatinous blocks they eat: cockroaches. It’s a scene that compounds the horror in which the rear-enders have been living in. Curtis doesn’t share the information with his fellow passengers.
They continue on their way. The next carriage is full of hooded men, equipped with axes, and in what is one of the most surreal and creepiest part of the film, the men welcome the revolutionaries by gutting a carp. There’s a few theories for why they do this associated with religion from Asian and Christian cultures, to the more practical theory that the fish blood they dip their axes in will give diseases to the enemies they wound. They fight their way through the men, where in one bizarre passage the hooded men stop fighting, count down to 10 and wish everyone a ‘Happy New Year’. The hooded men then put on googles of some sort. Namgoong hides Yona, telling Curtis he’s a fool. The train is about to pass through one of the longest tunnels on the route. The goggles are for night vision and without natural light to aid them the rear-enders are slaughtered in what is truly hideous footage, shot through the green glow of a night vision camera.
But Curtis, remembering some matches that Namgoong lost to a small pickpocket, calls the young pickpocket’s name. Fire is brought to the front and the light enables Curtis and his class to overcome the hooded men, even resulting in the capture of Mason, although at the cost of Edgar, a choice that Curtis makes which clearly alludes to all revolutionary sacrifices “for the greater good”. Before they move on, Franco the Younger charges forward from his capture in a bid to take out Curtis. Yona trips him and he dies, impaled upon a spear, his last moments spent trying to strangle Yona with one hand. Franco the Elder can only look on, subdued, cold fury etched into his face. We switch to Mason, who promises to help them get to the front in return for her life, and in a gesture of helplessness so nasty that even Andrew looks disgusted, she takes out her false teeth, accentuating her age and vulnerability. They pass through carriage after carriage, each one containing a different wonder. An aquarium, a meat freezer, a greenhouse, eventually stopping in a school. Here we learn how Wilford made the train and what happened to “The Seven”, the frozen seven that the train passes at the moment. We find out from Namgoong that his wife is one of them and that as an Inuit, she taught him all there was to know about snow. This explains her optimism in attempting to leave the train but it wasn’t enough. The seven remain frozen not far from the train, Namgoong’s wife leading them from the front for eternity.
It is then that a bald man passes through with a trolley of eggs, as does a man, taken from the rear end at the very start of the film, with a violin who starts to play it. Everyone takes an egg, which is when Curtis finds a new message: ‘Blood’. The teacher (played with a wonderful mixture of religious fervour and sickening-sweetness by Alison Pill) brings out an Uzi from the trolley and shoots Andrew dead. Everyone dives for cover in the gunfight, and it takes a well-thrown knife by Grey (Luke Pasqualino, of four musketeers fame) to silence the teacher. Mason tries to grab the teacher’s gun but is stopped by Curtis. She barely has time to beg for her life before Curtis loses patience and kills her in cold blood. It’s the first real action we have from Curtis that hints at something deeper than what his pretty-boy good looks let on.
The team carry onwards, but so does the bald headed man in the opposite direction, carrying a basket of eggs. In it is of course an Uzi which he uses on the passengers left behind guarding the prisoners from the various fights. He releases the prisoners, and some of them go to catch up with Curtis. One of them is the Franco the Elder. He pursues Curtis and nothing can stop him. He kills his own men, first-class passengers, Grey and Tanya in his quest to avenge the death of his progeny. The team manages to take him down eventually but now all that’s left is Curtis, Namgoong and Yona.
They go through the last stages, passing through carriages of opulence and debauchery that are unimaginable to Curtis and the world he knows in the rear of the train. Saunas, clubs, drug and sex orgies all exist for the enjoyment of the upper carriage’s members. This is again something the plot struggles to adequately explain – how have they been having parties with alcohol and drugs for 17 years? Once more, it’s not too important and it serves to highlight the disparity between these peoples, and of course, the disparity that exists in our own world. On the way Namgoong steals some drugs and fur coats that the drugged elite all seem to own. They make it to the end of the train, and it appears that there is one door they can’t get past. Curtis, dejected, sits down and tells Namgoong about himself, smoking the last cigarette in existence that is offered by Namgoong. Curtis tells him how the initial chaos of the train boarding took place, how there was no food or water and how the new passengers turned to cannibalism. Curtis tells us what he hates most about himself: he knows that babies taste best. We also discover that Curtis killed Edgar’s mother and had planned to eat Edgar, that is, until Gilliam stepped forward and cut off his own arm in order to save the child. It was then that other passengers did the same as Gilliam and cut off their limbs for others to feed on. Curtis tried to do the same but he couldn’t. He wasn’t strong enough to do so, and now we understand an earlier scene where Gilliam inspects some scars on Curtis’s arm and tells him that he must lead. Curtis thinks he is no leader because he could not make the sacrifices that Gilliam made. This too is an interesting concept used in the film and I believe reflects our dissatisfaction with our own political and economic leaders that like Curtis, enjoy all the benefits of leadership without any of the real sacrifices truly needed to earn it.
Namgoong though, then opens up for the first time and we see what it is he is doing in all this. He is not just some drug-addled loon: he has a plan too. He thinks it’s getting warmer outside. He has been collecting Kronol because it’s not just a drug: it’s an explosive. Rear end, front end, it doesn’t matter to Namgoong. He wants to be free. Free of the train and free of people, free in nature.
Then the door opens and a woman that took the children away earlier appears and shoots Namgoong, but it is not fatal. Curtis is ordered to come inside where finally, he, and we, meet Wilford (Ed Harris), and the most interesting part of the film really gets going. Wilford eats his steak dinner and talks to Curtis in a grandfatherly tone, explaining that everything on the train is in perfect balance, and it is the maintenance of this balance that he cares for. Wilford says that Gilliam was in on this and the two cooperated to keep the human population in balance, where regular revolutions would help to trim the population of all carriages, and also serve to keep each side in fear of the other. A screen showing a live feed is then shown, and the bald man executes Gilliam. He let things get too out of hand Wilfred says – the front suffered too many casaulties, so he had to pay for that. Curtis is distraught, especially once the bald man is instructed by Wilfred to kill all but 18 of the tail-enders, in honour of their 18th year on the train.
Whether it’s true that Gilliam cooperated with Wilfred is questionable. Why would a man that cut off his own limbs to help people then agree to their managed slaughter? It could just be part of Wilford’s attempt to dehumanize humanity in Curtis’ eyes, which he nearly succeeds in doing. We find out, that Wilford wants Curtis to take over from him since Wilford is ageing. Again the theme of sustainability is present: everything in perfect balance, the new replaces the old, one for one.
Outside Namgoong is wounded and fending off hordes of attackers, angry at the theft of their drugs, on a small bridge before the final door. Franco the elder now reaches the bridge and the two battle it out. The woman who serves Wilford is sent out and the door is now open. We see the people fighting, the braying, crazed mob hungry for violence and it is here that Wilford wants to make Curtis see humanity for what it really is. Savages unable to think for themselves, only interested in their immediate desires. Curtis knows this already but had thought that some men, like Gilliam, are good. Whether true or not Wilford has crushed his belief in the good people that Gilliam represented. Yona now runs to Curtis and begs him for help. For a moment, Curtis pushes her away and it seems that he is considering Wilford’s offer. Whether it’s the rear end, the front end, whoever it is, things will always be the same. It might as well be him that rules over them. But then, something happens. Andrew’s son, taken away at the beginning, appears, now shaven headed and working the internal machinery of the infinite engine. Wilford explains that parts are hard to come by now, but luckily the rear end produces a steady supply of small children that can fix the inside of the engine. It’s an act of cruelty too far for Curtis, who feels especially guilty for his crimes against children already, and he turns on Wilford. He then sees Tanya’s son but can’t get to him, the machinery is blocking his arm. He then realises that to save Tanya’s son he needs to sacrifice one of his arms, to jam the whirring gears, and use the other to rescue the boy. Curtis finally becomes a true leader and sacrifices a part of himself for the greater good, the life of a small boy.
Namgoong lights the bomb with the last match, having dispatched Franco the Elder at the bridge and our three heroes plus Tanya’s son embrace each other before the bomb goes off. Wilford is back at his seat and says, reflectively, “nice” as the bomb explodes. The train crashes, some carriages fall of a precipice, others mount up in a tunnel and others crash into the snow. Yona gets up with the boy. Everyone else is dead. She takes the fur coats her father seized, and wanders out to the snow with Tanya’s son. It’s warm enough for them to walk it seems, and there they see a polar bear. The camera focuses on the bear and the film ends.
I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed this film. I like my action films, I like my dystopian films, and I like my sci fi and I like my politics. This has all of that, an excellent set production and some great actors. John Hurt’s an old hand at dystopian sci-fi films but Tilda Swinton really stole the show in this. Her character is as truly detestable as it is memorable. The plot might have its holes but the story acts as an interesting way to analyse our own world and in what direction our own train is maybe headed.
One theme that immediately slaps you in the face, but I haven’t read much about on from the internet commentariat, is that of sustainability. Man’s attempt to control global warming fails, plunging them into a frozen oblivion, except for the survivors on the train. The train itself is a closed ecosystem, and as Mason explains, everything has its place on the train. Infinite energy is provided by the engine, water is provided by the train breaking up ice at the front and filtering it through an internal system. The populations of fish, people and animals has to be carefully managed. It’s clear what the train represents – it’s Earth. The train is our Earth, and outside for them is frozen death, but also likewise for us. The cold of space is all that awaits us outside of our atmosphere. The train runs on an infinite energy source, its perpetual combustion engine. Ours is essentially the sun which as far as we are concerned might as well be infinite, although physically it’s not.
What I took from this film is how it attempts to highlight this comparison. Not many people truly understand that Earth is just like the train. It was Boulding that first popularised this image with his notion of ‘spaceship earth’ but that didn’t really capture the imagination of people outside of academic circles in environmentalism. I wonder, did Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer manage to convey this to the audience? Did people walk away from this film thinking, maybe for the first time, that we only have a limited space in which to inhabit? The train is the only home the passengers have, just as Earth is the only one we’ll ever have. Although future population projections show that we might stabilise at 9 billion people by the year 2050, even if we do, will we be able to all have the material wealth of an average European, let alone North American? Will we be able to develop a good quality of life for all of Earth’s citizens within the limits of the planet or will we maintain a permanent underclass of cheap labour in the East and the South? The answers that Snowpiercer offers to these questions is not particularly optimistic. A bloodbath will ensue if those at the bottom can’t get their share of the cake.
And even when a new system distributes the cake differently, can it deal with the ultimate source of the cake: nature? Snowpiercer insinuates that whatever our interaction with nature, it ends in disaster. We caused global warming and it threatened to destroy us. So we tried to control global warming, and we then destroyed ourselves. What’s left of us on a train is too busy destroying itself to exist in balance and harmony. The last survivors, Yona and Tanya’s son may be all that’s left of the human race, either ready to start again or tread the path of countless species before us into extinction. The warming planet and the polar bear’s cameo tell us what the director thinks. Nature will always be there, our own place within it is less assured. We must learn to live as a part of nature instead of constantly seeking control over it, for it cannot be controlled. Wilfred’s calculated plan to control the population goes awry, Curtis’ quest for justice results in nearly everyone dying, Tanya and Andrew’s search for their children yields only bitter fruit. The travails and the ambitions of all our characters passes into nothingness.
Does the director only offer us a dystopian, nihisltic vision of humanity? Perhaps. I did however see an interview with Bong Joon-ho, and in it he says that he hopes humanity can start again at the end. There may be other survivors still from the train. Certainly there’s nothing in his film to suggest that we have to be self-destructive to the point of mutual oblivion. There is goodness in some of the characters. Gilliam and eventually Curtis himself sacrifice their own limbs for the benefit of infants. Tanya and Andrew’s love for their own children carries them further into the train than they could have ever hoped was possible. There is a scene right at the beginning where an elderly violinist tries to protect his equally elderly wife as she is brutally assaulted by guards. He is taken away but shouts back to her, reassuring her that it’ll all be ok. Love is a present theme in the film, and it is where this love for our fellow human beings is, is where we see the most goodness in the characters.
This is juxtaposed with the prevailing badness of the characters, where they commit brutal acts against one another as they vie for control of the train or to satisfy their own physical needs. When we seek to control each other, then love goes out the window and in the end, we all lose. When we use love to even overcome our baser needs such as hunger, then we can triumph in a way that is not possible without love. Before he saw Gilliam cut off his own arm, Curtis was merely surviving. After Gilliam’s self-sacrifice, he started to live.
Can Yona and the others that are (maybe) left choose a different path, or is humanity doomed to make the same choices? Is Wilfred right about us, are we really violent savages that will do whatever we can for control, or can we love more and control less? The film doesn’t answer these questions, but it makes for a supremely entertaining way to ask them.